The life of the Palestinian refugees over the last 60 years has been uniquely rich. Rich with suffering endured, rich with the capability to cope. Rich with a willingness to survive and continue, and to challenge all the circumstances. The tragedy of the Palestinian refugees was not only the loss of their homeland but also the loss of the human rights that the free world takes for granted, the loss of security, the loss of respect and the loss of dignity.
My father is an example of the second generation of the refugees in Gaza. He was a hard worker and spent most of his life working in Israel. As a father he could be peevish, but inside we all knew how much he loved us and wanted the best for us in every way. This ambition inspired him and gave him the strength to work even harder. Ultimately he managed to support his nine children through high education.
I can still remember how my father managed to save the money for my eldest brother’s study at the university in Cairo, and how he used to hide the money inside his shoes. I also still remember how he used to repair our shoes with his own hands. But what I remember most is the moment my father slapped me on the face before he gave me an Arabic book he bought me for school. I froze. I did not understand why until I heard his words, "I slapped you so that you would remember how hard I worked to buy you this book, so that you will never lose it, and you will know how expensive it was."
Through all these old memories, hard work and dire life, there was always a space, a window that was wide open to show us hope for tomorrow and a better future. It was this hope that encouraged my father as well as many other fathers to work as much as they can to provide a better life for their children. This hope inspired their struggle.
Since then life in Gaza has changed drastically. The Israeli authorities continue their blockade on Gaza and its people, who have become overwhelmed with exhaustion and depression. The most recent offensive left Gaza’s residents exposed and vulnerable, both physically and psychologically, unable to live a normal life.
As the days and weeks go by they merge into one. Children and adults alike have lost all spark of interest. There is no longer room for dreams, for wishes, for an innocent smile, for joy. Our minds are tormented with the continuous worries and thoughts about what will happen tomorrow, another invasion, or another war, more pain and more deaths.
The frequent exposure to such traumatic experiences has left us drained and strangely empty. The death of one person equals the death of another hundred. Death and life have become equal in our minds, the line between them has been blurred.
Our children stopped dreaming about what they would like to be in the future, because the future in Gaza is ambiguous, dark, and difficult to determine. This future, our future and the future of our children will never change as long as Gaza remains sealed. What will come in ten years will be the same as what has passed in the ten previous years.
The people of Gaza are locked in. Their lives will proceed according to the established rules of Gaza, which have been drawn up in advance and without consultation. The same life will be lived out in the same camp, with the same events and episodes continually repeating. In Gaza there are not enough options or opportunities. The children of Gaza are well aware of this.
"What is the benefit of going to school if I cannot study what I like most?" one asks. He knows that he cannot travel out of Gaza to take up a university place abroad.
"How can I have an open mind when I am living in Gaza unable to interact with the rest of the world or look upon other horizons?"
Another says, "I don’t want to marry and to have children because I don’t want them to suffer the way we suffer in Gaza."
"I will finish my study, and then I’ll have a job if I am lucky, and then I’ll get married, and then what? The same routine, nothing will change. Why should I bother having dreams for the future?"
These are not empty words, to capture the readers’ attention but reflect the reality of how Gaza’s people perceive their future, especially the young generation. It is hard to imagine in the current reality how any fathers will find the strength to struggle, as mine once did, with hope for his children’s future.
Gaza, March 2009
Najwa Sheikh Ahmed is a Palestine refugee, who lives in Nuseirat camp with her husband and three children. These are her personal stories.